When all the witches were haled to the stake and burned,
When their least ashes were swept up and drowned,
King Duffus opened his eyes and looked round.
For half a year they had trussed him in their spell:
Parching, scorching, roaring, he was blackened as a coal.
Now he wept like a freshet in April.
Tears ran like quicksilver through his rocky beard.
Why have you wakened me, he said, with a clattering sword?
Why have you snatched me back from the green yard?
There I sat feasting under the cool linden shade;
The beer in the silver cup was ever renewed,
I was at peace there, I was well-bestowed:
My crown lay lightly on my brow as a clot of foam,
My wide mantle was yellow as the flower of the broom,
Hale and holy I was in mind and in limb.
I sat among poets and among philosophers,
Carving fat bacon for the mother of Christ;
Sometimes we sang, sometimes we conversed.
Why did you summon me back from the midst of that meal
To a vexed kingdom and a smoky hall?
Could I not stay at least until dewfall?
~Sylvia Townsend Warner
“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being helpful either…. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day.”
~Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman, Sylvia Townsend Warner
If you’ve never read Lolly Willows, or The Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner, you should run out and find yourself a copy immediately. This book isn’t (necessarily) a Pagan book. It is an early twentieth century novel looking at the role of women in English society. Laura, or Lolly, the main character, is a spinster who casts off society’s expectations and eventually makes a pact with the devil. “If women, Townsend Warner implies, are denied access to power through legitimate means, they will turn instead to illegitimate methods – in this case to Satan himself, who pays them the compliment of pursuing them and then, having bagged them, performs the even more valuable service of leaving them alone.” (Sylvia Townsend Warner: the neglected writer) While modern witches have nothing to do with Satan, this book has always struck a chord within me and when I reread it, which I do every year or so, I’m reminded again and again about why I became a witch.
“If she had been called upon to decide in cold blood between being an aunt and being a witch, she might have been overawed by habit and the cowardice of compunction. But in the moment of election, under the stress and turmoil of the hunted Lolly as under a covering of darkness, the true Laura had settled it all unerringly. She had known where to turn…. She was a witch by vocation. Even in the old days of Lady Place the impulse had stirred in her. What else had set her upon her long solitary walks, her quests for powerful and forgotten herbs, her brews and distillations?”
I never felt I belonged in our church. My parents had to bribe me with coloring books and trips to MacDonald’s to get me to go. And according to my father, they just quit going to church after the bribes quit working and I started throwing screaming tantrums. Keep in mind that I had parents who didn’t let me get away with tantrums. I still have a healthy dose of fear for what my parents might say to me if I screw something up too badly. I don’t remember these tantrums, but they must have been pretty spectacular for my school-teacher parents to give in to me. I can’t think of any other instance in my entire life where I have done anything similar. I’m not a tantrum sort of person. I’m the “so-quiet-you-forget-they-can-actually-speak” sort of person.
I never found anything in a church that called to me; I never felt the divine in the church. But I knew no alternatives. When I left being Christian, I thought that there was really nothing else to pursue. I knew that the divine was real, I knew it existed; I had felt it when I walked in the woods of my childhood. Presences of things that I couldn’t explain had always been there. And, as I’ve mentioned before, my family is chock full of witches in denial. I didn’t know enough to call it Paganism at the time, but I started thinking about the divine as the Other. It was something that I could sense, call on,try to somehow explore. This helped bring me back into a spiritual balance.
It wasn’t until later, when I started living with a Pixie, that I was confronted with Paganism. The Pixie was an eclectic who was willing to put names to things and remind me to do the polite thing, like leave offerings of rum out to appease certain deities at the right moment. I found a great deal of peace around her altar, and a sense of comfort in thinking that she knew what was going on. Her knowledge of Paganism was slowly able to bring my sense of the Other into a concept that I could express. At this time I also found the Pirates, which was just as enlightening. The Pirates are a very eclectic Pagan bunch whose thirst for knowledge is unparalleled. It was through this group of wonderful people that I was finally beginning to learn the names of things; to know that the thoughts and feelings that I had had as long as I could remember where not as crazy as I had always thought. And while Pixie and I have not spoken in a long time, and I don’t know if we will again or not, I will always be grateful for the many wonderful things she brought into my life.
“She was changed, and knew it. She was humbler, and more simple. She ceased to triumph mentally over her tyrants, and rallied herself no longer with the consciousness that she had outraged them by coming to live at Great Mop. The amusement she had drawn from their disapproval was a slavish remnant, a derisive dance on the north bank of the Ohio. There was no question of forgiving them. She had not, in any case, a forgiving nature; and the injury they had done her was not done by them. If she were to start forgiving she must needs forgive Society, the Law, the Church, the History of Europe, the Old Testament, great-great-aunt Salome and her prayer-book, the Bank of England, Prostitution, the Architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen other useful props of civilization. All she had to do was go on forgetting them. But now she was able to forget them without flouting them by her forgetfulness”
I was very happy as an Eclectic. In fact, having had some very bad run-ins with Wiccans throughout the years, I was fine with keeping to my solitary nature and doing my own piratical thing.
And then I made the mistake of falling in love with not just a Wiccan, but an extremely staunch Wiccan. I have just written a column for the Pagan Household about this, but I’ve never really explained it here.
My S.O. and I do not live a conventional life. There’s a thirty year age difference between us. If you had told me five years ago that the love of my life was going to be an itinerant musician who was thirty years older than I am, I would have laughed you right out of town.While he and I don’t usually notice our age difference, the society that we live in certainly does. Even in New Orleans, it generally makes eyebrows raise and prompts some very inappropriate questions. And of course there’s always the old stereotype of the older man taking advantage of the younger woman. If anything, I take blatant advantage of him (which I openly admit to).
In my daily life, I run the acquisitions department of the library of a major Southern University. I work the usual sort of eight-to-five hours and bring in a steady paycheck with benefits. However, I refuse to give up being myself. I know a lot of people that cover up who they are when they are in the “real world”. I always live in the “real world”. My real world simply happens to include the fact that I am also a witch. My fantasy life is my actual life.
“’They say: ‘Dear Lolly! What shall we give her for her birthday this year? Perhaps a hot-water bottle. Or what about a nice black lace scarf? Or a new workbox? Her old one is nearly worn out.’ But you say: ‘Come here, my bird! I will give you the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in, and poisonous berries to feed on, and a nest of bones and thorns, perched high up in danger where no one can climb to it.’ That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.”
If you had then told me five years ago that I would start my path towards initiation in a Wiccan tradition this year, I would have laughed at you even harder. Until my S.O. came along, I had not had a lot of good run-ins with Wiccans. And as I said in my column, watching my mother exist in a religion that she didn’t really seem to believe in had always made me angry. I swore that I would never be the girl who converted for my partner’s sake. And I also know that age old argument about who can and cannot claim to be a witch. For this, I will continue to claim my old eclectic view. Anyone can be a witch. Being a witch really has nothing to do with what tradition you follow or your level of initiation. That whole year and a day thing is just sort of ridiculous to me. I see its purpose for those who are new to the whole idea and need to see a whole year as a witch, but are you a witch or aren’t you? It really is that simple. I’m not saying that you should claim knowledge that you haven’t gained or claim initiations that you haven’t earned, but the title Witch itself is just so much more encompassing than a tradition. This is one thing that the S.O. and I will have to continue to agree to disagree on. For me being a witch isn’t tied to being Wiccan. It is a state of mind and of being that I will never leave behind me, no matter how Wicca works out for me in the long run. But being a Witch means facing ones’ thoughts and fears, and perhaps Wicca is a step in this direction for me.
Laura cries ‘Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair’. The dullness of everyday life for women ‘settles down on one like a fine dust, and by and by the dust is age, settling down […] there is a dreadful kind of dreary immortality about being settled down on by one day after another’.
At the end of the novel Lolly Willowes Laura agrees to sell her soul to the devil in exchange for ridding her of nuisances and letting her live a peaceful existence. I have not sold my sold my soul to Satan (or even believe in such a figure), but by becoming a witch, I have found peace in my own life. My life would never be complete ever again if I had to give up this feeling. I hate the end of the movie Bell, Book, and Candle. I can’t imagine falling in love in a world where the love of my life could not accept this side of me or that even by being a witch, I wasn’t able to love. I’ve had to compromise my religious beliefs a little for my S.O , but he has had to compromise a little for me as well. Together, we are an excellent pair. And together, we are both witches of an excellent sort.